Maryland’s pet industry a breed apart -- Gazette.Net


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Even when money is tight, Fido will eat — and get his grooming, chew toys and shots, too.

“We’re about as recession-proof as we could possibly be,” said Margot Woods, owner of Applewoods Dog Training in Laurel.

Animals provide balance and a sense of control over something during times when so much seems out of people’s hands, she said.

Although many other industries have struggled during the Great Recession and sputtering recovery of the past three years, the pet industry has remained steady, generating $52.9 billion in revenues nationwide in fiscal 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association. That was up from $51 billion in 2011 and from $41.2 billion in 2007.

Of that $52.9 billion, about $20.5 billion went to food, while veterinary care accounted for $14 billion and pet services such as grooming and boarding had $4.1 billion in sales.

About 62 percent of all Americans own a pet, which means there’s at least one pet in 72.9 million homes.

“People will spend money on their animals before they do many other things,” said Jade Vonhawley of Puttin’ on the Dog, a pet grooming business in Catonsville. “It gives us a buffer, since they’re living things and they need care.”

“Maybe they’re not spending as much on toys or beds, but there’s been no decrease in quality as far as premium food purchases,” said Dan Lyons of Pet Depot, a pet supplies store in Timonium. “We’re from an area where everyone treats pets as one of the family. It’s also an area where most people have been able to hang onto a job.”

Lyons said his store has even seen growth in the premium food market, which he said reflects similar trends among people continuing to shop at high-end grocers.

“Maybe they’re not going to take a huge vacation or make some other expensive purchase instead of scaling back on premium dog food,” he said.

Starting despite the recession

Jamie Deason has seen her Silver Spring franchise of Fetch! Pet Care blossom so well throughout the recession and its aftermath that she has been honored by the International Franchise Association. Deason’s pet-sitting franchise has averaged more than 120 percent year-over-year revenue growth since she got her franchise toward the start of the recession, which ran from late 2007 to mid-2009.

“A lot more people are able to keep their jobs here in Maryland, but they may have to put in longer hours, so they need walkers and boarders,” she said, adding that she has lost some daily walk clients despite her growth.

Deason’s franchise sees up to 250 clients each month, she said. She said she bought the franchise because she and her husband were having a hard time finding a company that would board her dog on her schedule.

Fetch! Pet Care operates in 1,500 communities and provides a real-time check-in site and pet-sitter matching services, said Paul Mann, CEO of the Berkley, Calif., company. Two people own franchises in Maryland.

He said Fetch’s range also allows the company to board pets at their owners’ destinations when they’re away from home.

The pet industry is the seventh-largest retail market in the U.S. and the sixth-fastest growing, with a 6 percent annual growth projection, Mann said.

Jeff Foster of Whoop Da Doo, a walking and pet cleanup business in Poolesville, saw the recession as an opportunity.

“With people working longer hours and multiple shifts, they need someone to pick up after their dog,” he said. “People still pay $40 to $60 to get their grass cut. They will pay to have someone clean their yard before it’s cut.”

His business has done so well that he will need to start hiring people to work alongside him, Foster said.

‘Pets are always taken care of’

Groomers also have not experienced much of an economic pinch, said Roy Haaser of the Groomery & Olde Towne Bed and Biscuit in Gaithersburg. The Groomery sees up to 40 animals daily, he said.

Haaser, who has kept his 38-year-old business together through several recessions, said people may stretch out the time between groomings during economic downturns, but they always come back.

But Haaser’s boarding business has taken minor hits, which he attributed to fewer people traveling and needing less boarding services.

But, overall, the last two years have been his best ever, he said.

Maryland veterinarians seem to be bucking a national trend.

“What’s happening is that [veterinarians elsewhere are] seeing pets sicker than what they’re used to, since people are waiting longer to bring them in,” said Marcella Bonner of Diamond Veterinary Hospital in Gaithersburg. “But it’s been steady for us, not higher or lower. People that love animals love them anyway.”

Diamond sees up to 30 animals per day, she said.

“We don’t see any rapid swings. People take care of their pets. They tend to plan and budget for them,” said Michael King of Frederick Cat Vet. “Maybe payment plans have gone up a little, but pets are always taken care of.”

Harder times among specialized businesses

Specialized pet care, such as high-end groomers, may be more affected by the slow recovery, said Vonhawley, in Catonsville. She charges more at Puttin’ on the Dog because her groomers are nationally certified.

To offset her disadvantage, Vonhawley turns to websites such as Angie’s List and magazines that reach a higher-end clientele.

Marjorie Lewis, owner of Marjorie Equine Sports Therapeutics and Ask Your Animals in Frederick, said both her businesses have slowed down.

“People are more likely to put off procedures they think their horse can live without,” she said. “A lot of it depends on which services are considered discretionary or mandatory.”

Her animal communication business has fared better because most people who seek out those services view their situation as a crisis, Lewis said.

Still, Woods, in Laurel, cautioned people against trying to start a pet business right now. Woods has been training animals since 1978.

“The pet business is not as good as before the recession by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a whole lot better than what everyone else is facing,” she said.

Woods said specialized pet businesses need to offer value and reasons for customers to keep returning. Applewoods offers a continuous program that may take five years to complete.

Lewis also said there’s a dichotomy, between wealthy pet owners who keep spending and the slew of animals being abandoned as their owners face hard times.

“For the people who hold onto their pets, they’re keeping them at all costs,” she said.

lrobbins@gazette.net